‘Well-rounded’ college applications no longer ideal, counselors say

Of the persistent myths and misconceptions surrounding the college application process, there is perhaps none more pervasive than the myth of the “well-rounded” student.

Conventional wisdom holds that colleges seek to admit students who have their toes in a little bit of everything. Thus, the star thespian might be advised to go out for track, the music prodigy feels compelled to run for student council, and the phenomenal athlete joins clubs with reckless abandon.

But here’s the truth: the stereotypical student who seems to have it all—good grades, a sport or two, some volunteer hours, a long list of clubs and doubtless accolades—is not going to stand out at all in a sea of similar college applicants. As noted by Carmel High counselors Jeff Schatz and Darren Johnston, universities want to build a well-rounded class—that is, a class full of students who avidly pursue a diverse range of interests—rather than admit individually well-rounded students.

“Colleges have institutional needs and they want students who are going to contribute to the campus in a meaningful way,” Schatz explains. “They have many different majors, minors and other established activities and organizations that need students who are committed to succeeding in that field.”

An admissions committee will immediately discount a laundry list of clubs that demonstrate no authentic commitment or real initiative—especially if the activities presented were joined of recent occurrence in one’s junior or senior year. That’s because the time commitment required to pursue one or two activities to a degree of excellence precludes spending much time on the usual range of extracurriculars.

“[Aspects of extracurriculars and community service] really put your academic achievements into context,” Johnston remarks. “The same person who does nothing else but school—who gets A’s—versus the one who has an internship or a carries a job or has volunteer experience clearly outweighs the other. As expected, it just forms a dull applicant.”

Nonetheless, factors such as the mean SAT scores and GPA, as well as the number of enrolled students, should also be considered.

Overall enrollment at postsecondary institutions grew from 25 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 2014 among young adults between the ages 18 and 24, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.The increase in competition is fueled in part by the growing population of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. with more students considering college; this translates to a surge in applicants that may increase a school’s selectivity, meaning lower acceptance rates.

Deluged by more applications than ever, colleges, especially the most selective ones, inevitably reject a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted.Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.

Johnston reiterates that those who follow their passions are more likely to generate a favorable response.

In seniors Alessandro Boaro and Abby Lambert, this proves the case. Both have directed their interests and efforts into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field.

“I didn’t take any courses to seem more well-rounded,” explains Lambert, who recently was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I am definitely STEM-oriented and pursued science and music through my class choices.”

Boaro, avid in his path as an aspiring landscape architect, considers himself a well-rounded student, but for a different reason many of those who similarly profess themselves to be.

“I try to dabble in all the fields which give me a foundation of knowledge for my career,” he shares.

“I knew that advanced science and math classes would offer an excellent foundation for all the science departments at the schools I applied to.”

He explains that by personalizing his strengths, especially as a first-generation college student, he is able to present himself as a determined individual through developing a self-reliant worth ethic, all of which greatly appeal to colleges.

Of course, the enigma of the college application is constantly changing and can’t be answered with one sweeping generalization. Nonetheless, one thing remains clear: students are constantly pressured to live up to increasing expectations, but, through it all, should remain confident in their aspirations without sacrificing too much for the sake of a more “well-rounded” application.

-Grace Liang